Lessons of the campaign shape Clinton's plan

JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

February 20, 1993|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- Most newly elected presidents like to say the political campaign that won the White House for them was a learning experience that they intend to take to heart in the Oval Office.

In 1968, in just one memorable example, Richard Nixon on the morning of his razor-thin victory over Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey recalled seeing -- or conjured up -- a little girl in Deshler, Ohio, standing along the tracks as his whistle-stop train went by, holding a sign that read "Bring Us Together." That, Nixon said grandly, would be "the great objective of this administration."

What Nixon didn't recall was what he had said at the Deshler whistle-stop that day, playing the inflammatory law-and-order card with a vengeance: "In the 45 minutes it takes to ride from Lima to Deshler, this is what has happened in America: There has been one murder, two rapes, 45 major crimes of violence, countless robberies and auto thefts."

Nixon went on to do exactly the opposite of what that real or imagined little girl's real or imagined sign said. He deeply divided the nation in the course of plundering constitutional rights and eventually causing a national crisis.

Other new presidents in turn, Democratic and Republican, have heard what served their purposes to hear along the campaign trail and then went on to do what they wanted, so a wait-and-see attitude is prudent now. But President Clinton, in his already controversial pitch for economic and tax reform, seems to be acting in accordance with what voters were demanding when they went to the polls last Nov. 3.

Clinton says they told him during the campaign that they wanted change, and change is what he will give them. He also says they want to be told the bare truth about problems and he intends to do that, too -- although, so far, in his fashion, it is to put the best gloss on things.

His bad-medicine economic plan certainly lives up to that billing, as witnessed by the complaints already being heard from every special interest group taking a hit.

Now that Clinton and his Cabinet have taken the prescription out to the country, his public relations blitz is being compared to that of newly elected President Ronald Reagan, who took his case to the voters, too, in 1981, though chiefly on television.

A significant difference is that Reagan promised voters a tax cut during his 1980 campaign, and after his inaugural sought to persuade them that it was good for them -- like the Good Humor man coaxing a kid to eat an ice cream bar. Clinton, who said last year he wanted to give those in the middle class a tax cut, is telling them now that paying more taxes will be good for them -- a task worthy of the talents of a cemetery plot salesman.

But in trying, Clinton is betting on his reading of the electorate that put him in office, or -- more precisely -- that threw George Bush out. The 43 percent of the Nov. 3 turnout that voted for Clinton, plus the 19 percent that went for Ross Perot, amounted to a rejection of Bush by nearly 2 to 1. Clinton chooses to read that statistic as a call for an end to the 12 years of ducking fiscal and economic reality that occurred under Reagan and Bush.

In some ways, in fact, Clinton is sounding more as if it were Perot who was elected. He doesn't say, as Perot liked to snap throughout 1992, that "it's that simple" to solve the nation's economic mess. But his proposals to attack the federal deficit with a combination of spending cuts and tax increases could have been lifted, with modifications, from Perot's best-seller.

Again in his State of the Union address, Clinton borrowed the Perot jargon, reminding members of Congress assembled before him that the voters are their "customers" -- Perot calls them "owners" -- and are entitled to value for the money they shell out for government services.

Early polls indicate overwhelming public support for the president's economic package, tax increases and all. But the long knives on the Republican side of the aisle in Congress, and among the lobbyists of varying persuasions, have yet to be unsheathed and put into action.

Clinton is counting on those voices for change he says he heard along the campaign trail -- cheering either for him or Perot -- making themselves heard effectively in the tough legislative battles ahead. For his sake, they'd better be more visible than that little girl from Deshler, Ohio, whom reporters were unable to find after Nixon made her famous.

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